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The Statute of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stipulates, inter alia, that UNHCR ‘shall assume the function of providing international protection, under the auspices of the United Nations, to refugees who fall under the present Statute…’ The expression ‘international protection’ also features prominently in official documents of UNHCR, and in state practice. Often referred in its short form as simply ‘protection’, it has also been used in relations to persons displaced within their countries because of conflict or those fleeing droughts, famine, or floods. What is meant by international protection? What are its conceptual content and boundaries? The Statute of UNHCR, the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, several resolutions of the General Assembly of the United Nations on refugees and displaced persons, the official documents of UNHCR and of states parties to the 1951 Convention are silent on these central questions. While the issues of refugee rights, legal and institutional problems of protection, including protection of people at risk in conflict situations, and how the policies and practices of states and UNHCR affect refugees and other persons of concern have received attention in the literature, there has been no attempt to conceptualise international protection and ground it in the experiences of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR and the international community. The objective of this paper is twofold: firstly, to explain the concept of international protection of refugees and other displaced persons that currently informs – if somewhat implicitly – the work with refugees and displaced persons, tracing its historical evolution to two central formative phases, the inter-war period and the years after the end of World War II; and secondly, to propose a normative framework on the proper conceptual approach to the international protection of refugees. It is argued that a conceptualisation of the idea of international protection of refugees that provides a framework distinguishing between the means and the ends of protection is needed; in other words, a concept of international protection that transcends the idea of law and institutions as protection and that defines a vision, a goal, or an overarching objective, which mobilises law, institutions, materials, and politics as inter-related means or vehicles for fulfilling and reaching that vision and overarching objective.

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Discussion paper


Refugee Studies Centre

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